2019 Playoff Predictions

Well, here we finally are. The 2019 Playoffs start tomorrow night with the first two of four controversial single elimination games: Minnesota at Seattle and Phoenix at Chicago. I am not a fan of the single elimination games, I am however a pretty ok fan of the first and second round byes for the top two teams. Sorry not sorry. Anyway, let me tell you what I think is going to happen in the playoffs this year, and you can laugh about how wrong I probably am.

First Round Game 1: Mercury at Sky

My first impressions of this game are that the Sky will ultimately win this game with their offense. The Sky are really surprisingly, yet not surprisingly good this year. They boast the second best offense in the league, and they are the second best passing team in the league, which isn’t surprising since Courtney Vandersloot handed out a league record 300 assists, 98 more than the second place runner up Chelsea Gray. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised how good the offense is, because with Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson, Diamond DeShields, and Jantel Lavender, etc, you have a core group of really talented, somewhat underrated players that have always had to potential to be this good. New head coach James Wade has turned this team into a playoff team once again, and you have to be excited for the next several years in Chicago.

The Mercury, on the other hand, to use a bad pun, are in retrograde. Griner and Bonner put up MVP caliber numbers, and Mitchell filled in for Taurasi so well that she is likely going to win Most Improved, but beyond that, this team does not have enough to be highly competitive in the playoffs this year. Briann January, Essence Carson, Yvonne Turner, Camille Little and the rest of the young core are only averaging about 4 to 6 points a game each, and Phoenix needs more if they expect to win in the playoffs. Would a healthy Taurasi have been the difference this season? That’s very likely, but you also have to wonder how much longer she has.

Prediction: Chicago Sky win it with their offense.


First Round Game 2: Minnesota at Seattle

Last year’s champs are back in the playoffs thanks to the absolutely MVP caliber season of one of the best two way players in the league: Natasha Howard. Howard has a case for winning both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award, although the consensus seems to be that she will take home Defensive Player award honors and not MVP. She has stepped up big time in the absence of last year’s Breanna Stewart, and while Jewell Loyd’s numbers certainly took a dip this year, she has still been effective. Jordin Canada has, like Mitchell in Phoenix, done a great job replacing Taurasi’s best pal Sue Bird, another legendary point guard who could have really helped guide this team to more wins. Canada has put up Most Improved Player numbers, and though I doubt she takes the award, her play in just her second year has to be commended. Strong contributions from veterans like Alysha Clark and younger players like another Most Improved Player candidate Mercedes Russell and Sami Whitcomb have kept the Storm competitive all year long to the surprise of just about everyone in the league, except the probably the entire Storm roster and head coach Dan Hughes.

The Minnesota Lynx on the the hand, like their long time rivals the Mercury, look like a team in transition. But like their opponents in Round 1, they are team that have surprised me, and I would wager plenty of others in how they stayed hungry and have won themselves a playoff spot with an 18-16 record. Head Coach Cheryl Reeve has relied heavily on Rookie of the Year candidate Napheesa Collier, who has played more minutes than anyone else in the league all season long, and has been a highly impressive cog in the Lynx system. Odyssey Sims has been a Most Improved Player candidate and is the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, while also averaging 5.4 assists per game. Former MVP center Sylvia Fowles has also put up solid numbers to help anchor both sides of the floor. Danielle Robinson and Damiris Dantas round out the starting rotation and both average about 10 points per game. Without Maya Moore who is sitting this year out, the Lynx look like a team who, like the Mercury and the Storm, could really use their best player at the start of what looks to be a very competitive playoffs. With that said I believe that Seattle will get it done at home, although I think this will be a very good, hard fought game by both teams.

Prediction: Seattle wins by a slight margin at home.


Round 2

So what happens in Round 2 after the reseeding? Well, if my choices hold, that means the Storm will move on to play the Los Angeles Sparks and the Sky will move on to play the Las Vegas Aces.

Seattle vs Los Angeles

Both recent WNBA title winners, the Sparks have been the better overall team this season as well as most of the last 5-6 years. If the Sparks can’t beat the Storm in a single game elimination game series, I’d place the blame squarely on new head coach Derek Fisher, but I don’t see that happening. The Ogwumike sisters, Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker, Riquna Williams, and newly added Tiara Ruffin-Pratt all add up to a team that is about the third best offense and third best defense in the league, which could be very dangerous in any later 5 game series. Either way, the Sparks are moving on to Round 3.

Prediction: Sparks win with big second half.

Las Vegas Aces vs Chicago Sky

The Aces stumbled into the playoffs at the end of regular season, going 6-4 in their last ten games. But they are in the playoffs for the first time in just the team’s second season, thanks in large part to the trade that brought highly coveted center Liz Cambage from the Wings. Cambage immediately transformed the Aces from not quite playoff contenders to sudden Finals bound favorites. Cambage has held up her end of the deal in transforming Bill Laimbeer’s team into the best defense and one of the best rebounding teams in the league. A’ja Wilson has continued her progression from her Rookie of the Year season a year ago, Dearica Hamby is the 6th Woman of the Year in what appears to be just about everybody’s book, Kayla McBride continues to be one of the best wings in the league and Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young round out a solid if not highly consistent starting backcourt.

So what can we expect in a game with one of league’s best offenses versus the league’s best defense? I think we can expect Chicago’s guards to play very well, while I am betting that the Aces to dominate the paint, not unlike these two teams’ regular season meetings. Dolson is going to have to step against Wilson and Cambage if the Sky want to win this game, Plum and Young will have to really up their play more than once to stop Quigley and Vandersloot, but ultimately I think the Aces defense wins this game.

I don’t know that the Sky have an answer for McBride, and I don’t know that the Aces have an answer for DeShields, so I’m betting those two players are two big X-factors for either team. Although, with the added pressure of the playoff stage, big role players like Dearica Hamby and Tamera Young for the Aces and Kahleah Copper, Cheyenne Parker, and Astou Ndour will all have to step and play their hearts out if they want to help their team win.

Prediction: Aces win thanks to their stellar defense and scoring down low.


Round 3: Aces vs Mystics & Sparks vs Sun

Round 3 will be a wild ride, that’s all I can really say. The Mystics’ record setting #1 offense versus the Aces #1 defense, where every game will be a battle. And the Sparks versus the Connecticut Sun, which honestly figures to be the most competitive series of the entire playoffs. The Mystics will likely out pass and simply out-shoot the Aces from behind the 3-point line, and their bench will provide the minutes and scoring to simply wear down the Aces starters and the rest of their rotation. I think the Mystics are so hungry and so finely tuned, that unless an injury hits the starting five, they make it past the Aces in a few close games, but get big blowout wins at home when the Aces are tired.

Prediction: Mystics in 4 games.

Los Angeles Sparks vs Connecticut Sun

The Sparks and Sun series is going to be all out war, because the Sparks still have everything to prove along with the talent to win, and the Sun are staring down the opportunity to finally have a trip to Finals after so many years of early round playoff heartbreak. Chiney Ogwumike may well turn her game up to 11 in a bid for some kind of revenge against her former team, but the Sun may be just as hungry to exact a bit of retribution on the player that seemed to have left abruptly with little in return other than a first round pick in the 2020 draft. But then again, a somewhat diminished role in Los Angeles alongside her sister Nneka, may mean that Chiney’s contributions to this series are no more than what we might expect, 10 points per game and 6 rebounds. That stat line won’t likely add up to the difference for the Sparks winning any games, as I suspect it’s going to come down to Candace Parker showing up big time, as well as the guard Riquna Williams and Chelsea Gray.

On the other side of the court stand the Sun, who are are team that plays fast and gets everyone involved basically every single game they play. You can almost always bet on all five of Connecticut’s starters scoring 10-12 points a night and using their speed and ability to steal the ball to win games. The Sun rebound very well, second best behind the Aces, and they don’t turn the ball over very much, but the same could be said for the Sparks, they usually take care of the ball and they rebound pretty well, too. I don’t know who the X-Factors in this series are. Both of these teams, in my mind, are pretty evenly matched, and have plenty of talent and ability up and down their respective rosters. I would say that for the Sun, it will come down to Jonquel Jones staying healthy and out of foul trouble. If she can score inside the paint and outside on the perimeter like we know she can, and if Courtney Williams and Jasmine Thomas can distribute the ball and keep the pace high, than the Sun ultimately win this series.

However, the Sparks have more playoff experience, and they have Chelsea Gray, Candace Parker, and Nneka Ogwumike who can all put up really big numbers any given night. I can say they same for Alyssa Thomas, Jonquel Jones, and Courtney Williams, but not with the same level of confidence as with Los Angeles’ stars.

Like I said in the beginning, in my mind, this will be the most competitive series in the entire playoffs, so I have a very difficult time decided who ultimately wins this series.00 but over the course of an entire 5 game series, I say Connecticut, hungry as ever, barely edges out Los Angeles in an insanely tough group of games.

Prediction: The Sun keep it together, play fast, rebound the ball, and ultimately prevail in very tough 5 games.


The 2019 WNBA Finals: Washington Mystics vs Connecticut Sun

This year, East Coast rivals meet up in a Finals that sees two teams that have both been here before, neither having been able to reach the summit to actually win an WNBA Championship. Both are hungry and full of talent. Both have great head coaches, one with most in WNBA history; the other an up and coming talent who won Coach of the Year honors just two years ago. Both teams will come into this series having been tested all season long, and both will be ready to play and willing to put everything on the line for their team. The Sun will look to push the pace, as the Mystics will want to play a slightly more half-court game. The Sun will also look to cause a lot of turnovers, because if they don’t, they will suffocate under the crisp passing and shooting that the Mystics have proven they can defeat anyone with on any given night. The Mystics, of course, will look to shoot a whole heck of a lot of three-pointers, and if they don’t shoot well, look for the Sun to take advantage on the defensive glass to again, push the tempo and score in transition on the opposite end. Look for the Sun to try to stop everyone else but Elena Delle Donne, believing that they can do to a healthy Delle Donne the exact opposite of what the Storm did to an injured Delle Donne in last year’s Finals: let her do her thing and hope everyone else on the team doesn’t show up. But I think the Mystics know who they are this season as opposed to last season. They know they can out play anyone in the league right now. They know that Delle Donne is only the top player in a long rotation of offensively supercharged players. And that’s just the facts for both these teams coming into the Finals. The Mystics know, and the Sun know, and everyone else in the league, from the coaches to the players to the fans to the media know one thing for sure: the Mystics look like an absolutely unbeatable juggernaut this season. The time is now for Elena Delle Donne. The time is now for Mike Thibault, the time is now for everyone on this team, and the time is now for the Washington Mystics to finally win a WNBA championship.

Prediction: Mystics offense overpowers the Sun in 4 games.

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WNBA Awards Season

With the regular season over yesterday, the WNBA moves into the playoffs, and with that, comes awards season. The Most Improved Player award is probably the one I had the most trouble with, and the most fun choosing. After crunching the numbers, I found myself with a real dilemma. Atlanta’s Elizabeth Williams improved her game averages from last season with the Sun in points, rebounds, assists, and steals (not including her vast improvement in blocks) by a whopping 228%.

The Mystics Tayler Hill improved in the same statistical categories by 112%, and the Liberty’s Sugar Rodgers, along with last year’s rookie of the year, Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, both improved by 72.5 and 73% respectively.

So, the raw numbers tell us that Elizabeth Williams is by far the most improved player of 2016, right? Well, when I also calculated their individual increases in minutes per game, I saw that Williams increased her minutes by 192%, while Hill’s minutes increased by 72.3%, Rodgers increased by 66.8%, but Loyd’s minutes only increased by 23%. And all four players are playing pretty similar minutes this year, about 30, with Williams with the most at 34 per game.

So the question became, how do I reconcile a player’s improved stat line, when they’ve had a much greater increase in minutes to do it in, especially when you compare Williams with Loyd? I wondered, well, an increase in minutes could be because they steadily improved, and so they deserved more minutes, or they simply got more minutes because of a trade or injury to a starting player. A trade was the case with Williams, as she played a backup role in Connecticut last year, but got a starting role in Atlanta’s lineup this year. Either way, I never quite figured out how to compare the stats percentages with the minutes percentages. I figured someone else has already done this for me, say with Hollingers’s PER, but I’m still not certain if this kind of stat reflects the question I was asking myself. I am by no means a stats guru, and I was always terrible at math, but the older I have gotten the more I have enjoyed statistics and crunching simple numbers. So I just decided I would divide the average percentage of stats by the player’s percentage in increased minutes and make that a ratio. Again, perhaps I’m a simpleton when it comes to stats and this is something already in existence, but bear with me. The ratios that I came up when I did the division surprised me, as Loyd, despite the more modest increase in stats, seemingly improved at a better rate, or at least did so in less time than the other 3 players:

Stats% to Minutes Increased% Ratio:

Elizabeth Williams: 1.188

Tayler Hill: 1.556

Sugar Rodgers: 1.085

Jewell Loyd: 3.108

Is this kind of ratio absurd? Does it make any sense, or no sense at all? Is it already accounted for or dismissed by some Sports Stats Guru at ESPN? I honestly have no idea. But after looking at the players’ PER numbers from last year to this year, I am still not sure if there is a correlation of some kind, or if I simply have no idea what I am talking about. Obviously in this day and age of advanced stats, we can adjust the expectations we have for a player based on PACE, based on starting and bench roles, based on position, based on so many factors, so I still don’t know what to think of ratio I came up with.

Williams PER from last year to this year went from 17.9 to 15.6, Hill went from 13.5 to 17, Rodgers went from 14.1 to 15.3, while Loyd went from 14 to 18.3. ┬áSo, maybe there is a correlation, maybe there is none at all. But in trying to reconcile the idea of a player improving less, but seemingly more with the less increased time they had to do it in, I came to the conclusion, that ultimately, I can’t fault a player like Elizabeth Williams for getting more minutes, or getting traded into a starting role on a different team. I can’t really figure out if she got more minutes because she steadily put up better numbers, or if she put up better numbers simply because she had more minutes. I can only applaud her for her vast improvement in basically every major stat category, and on both ends of the floor. So in the end, I have to pick Elizabeth Williams as Most Improved Player of 2016.

Coach of the Year, for me, goes to Brian Agler and the part that he has played in turning the Sparks around this season. Everyone has stepped up this season on this roster, but the coaching staff has to be recognised for a job well done as well. This Sparks team has in my view played above and beyond, not perhaps their talent or potential, but certainly beyond the expectations I had for them at the beginning of the season. But do I think Coach Agler will win? No, I have no doubt it will go to Cheryl Reeve, who has done just as excellent a job as Agler, and who’s team is primed and ready to tie the Houston Comets for the record 4 WNBA titles.

Sixth Woman of the Year is without a doubt going to be Jantel Lavender. She had some pretty good competition in rookie Aerial Powers of the Dallas Wings, and Shavonte Zellous of the Liberty, but she was simply outstanding off the bench for the Sparks this season.

Rookie of the Year may well be a unanimous vote with Seattle’s #1 pick Breanna Stewart. Former UConn teammate Moriah Jefferson, now of San Antonio, Chicago’s Imani Boyette, Dallas’s Aerial Powers, and Indiana’s Tiffany Mitchell all had good rookie seasons, but they are all essentially in a race for second place.

Defensive Player of the Year is a category that is a tough choice, because I have to say the Breanna Stewart, along with the ROY award, probably also deserves this one as well. Who’s lead the league in defensive rebounds? Stewart. Who was third in block shots? Stewart. Who just set the record for most defensive rebounds in a season? Stewart. What’s more important than blocks, especially blocks that simply stop play, go out of bounds and keep the ball in the other team’s end of the floor? Defensive rebounds.

That brings us to the final award category: Most Valuable Player. Who’s my pick? Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks. Why? Because 6 Western Conference Player of the Week awards, 2 Western Conference Player of the Month awards, a season PER of 31.4, and an effective field goal percentage of .687, that’s why, Tina Charles. Sorry. I love you Tina, but Nneka is taking this one this year.

So those are my picks. I hope I haven’t disappointed or infuriated you too much. Stay tuned for a playoff preview!